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Missing back-story

31 January 2014


"YOU can't be Jamaican and not be ambitious." Certainly Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin, chaplain to the Queen and to the Speaker of the House of Commons, is not somebody to hide her light under a bushel. In Desert Island Discs (Radio 4, Sunday of last week, repeated Friday) she told of how, by the force of her personality, she had converted somebody to the cause of female ordination; and of an occasion when she intervened in a fight outside her vicarage.

Her choice of music was sim-ilarly extrovert, beginning with the classic "Hot, hot, hot", and ending with Harry Belafonte's "Island in the sun". It takes a great deal of chutzpah to pull off a playlist like that.

On the other hand, she denied having any ambition to become a bishop; but this was not the kind of interview that gave us anything about the career path somebody even as remarkable as Prebendary Hudson-Wilkin might have trodden to get from Montego Bay to the heart of the Establishment. To criticise Desert Island Discs for lifestyle interviewing is like having a go at The X Factor for not applying Associated Board standards of musicianship.

Here is a person who has seemingly broken down every barrier, and yet we did not hear anything about what she did to get there, or what she does now that she is there. There was a whole other story there which was out of earshot; while, sadly, the strains of Belafonte were vividly present.

The Radio 4 week is now topped and tailed by Tom Sutcliffe. Not only does he host a review of the week's books, performances, and exhibitions on The Saturday Review, but he gets to preview them as well in Start the Week (Radio 4, Mondays), which has long lost any pretence to be other than a plugging opportunity for writers, artists, and producers.

This is not always a bad thing, since it allowed us to hear last week from Dick Swaab, whose book We Are Our Brains is a further contribution to the literature on how neuroscience can help us understand the nature of free will. Swaab argues that genetics predestines us to pretty much all of our aesthetic, social and ethical proclivities, and that we fool ourselves if we think that we control our decisions.

So far, so predictable (or should I say predestined?). With the philosopher Julian Baggini in the studio, there might have been a chance to lay into this issue, but Baggini had other fish to fry, and was not going to hang around picking the bones with a rival for air-time. As for poor Sutcliffe, I wonder if he ever gets the chance to read or see anything without having to form a three-sentence appraisal suitable for broadcast.

Plenty of shows do this sort of thing, since in these straitened times you can get guests on for nothing if they are doing a plug. But in the most amiable instances, it does not seem to matter. In The Verb (Radio 3, Friday), it was all forgotten in the wake of the comedian Alex Horne's discourse on sounds and how to describe and transliterate them. The sound of a snowflake on a bubble: "fffhhp". Does Alka Seltzer go "plink" or "plop"? And what kind of punch is evoked when, in the old TV version of Batman, the screen lights up with the word "zgruppp"?

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